Every year more than 2500 Australians die from diseases linked to eating too much salt.
We should not put up with so much unnecessary illness, mainly from heart disease and stroke, and so many deaths.
As a new report from the Grattan Institute shows, there are practical steps the federal government can take to save lives, reduce health care costs and help the economy.
We eat too much salt with deadly consequences
Eating too much salt is bad for your health. It raises blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
About one in three Australians have high blood pressure and eating too much salt is the biggest individual contributor.
Unfortunately, the average Australian eats too much salt – almost double the recommended daily maximum of 5 grams, equivalent to a teaspoon.
Australian governments know that excessive salt intake is a big problem. That’s why in 2021 they set themselves the goal of reducing salt intake by at least 30% by 2030.
This is an ambitious and worthy goal. But we still eat too much salt and we have no policy to change that.
Most of the salt we eat is added to food during production
Most of the salt Australians eat doesn’t come from the shaker at the table. About three-quarters of it is added to food during production.
This salt is hidden in everyday foods like bread, cheese and processed meats. Common foods, such as ready-to-eat pasta dishes or a ham sandwich, can have up to half of the total recommended salt intake.
Salt restrictions are the best way to reduce salt intake
Reducing the amount of salt added to food during production is the most effective way to reduce intake.
Salt restrictions can help us do this. They work by setting limits on how much salt can be added to different types of food, such as bread or biscuits. To meet these restrictions, companies must modify their product recipes by reducing the amount of salt.
Under the salt restrictions, the UK reduced salt intake by 20% in about a decade. South Africa is making even faster gains. Salt restrictions are cheap and easy to implement and can achieve results quickly.
Most users will not notice a change to the checkout. Companies will have to update their recipes, but even if all the costs of updating recipes were passed on to shoppers, we estimate that it would cost the average household about 10 cents each week at most.
Nor will consumers notice much of a change at the dinner table. Most people don’t notice when some of the salt is removed from common foods. There are many ways companies can make foods taste just as salty without adding as much salt.
For example, they can make the salt crystals finer or use potassium-enriched salt, which replaces some of the harmful sodium in the salt with potassium. And since the change will be gradual, our taste buds will adapt to less salty foods over time.
Australia’s salt restrictions are failing
Australia has had voluntary salt restrictions since 2009, but they are poorly designed, poorly enforced and have only reduced population salt intake by 0.3%.
As the restrictions in Australia are voluntary, many food companies have opted out of the scheme. Our analysis shows that 73% of eligible food products do not participate, and only 4% have reduced their salt content.
Action can save lives
Modeling from the University of Melbourne shows that fixing our failed salt restrictions could add 36,000 extra years of healthy life for the entire population over the next 20 years.
This will delay more than 300 deaths each year and reduce health care costs by A$35 million per year, the equivalent of 6,000 hospital visits.
International experience shows that the costs of implementing such salt restrictions would be very low and far outweighed by the benefits.
How to fix our failed salt restrictions
To achieve these gains, the federal government must begin by enforcing the restrictions we already have by making compliance mandatory. Fifteen countries have mandatory salt restrictions and 14 plan to introduce them.
The number of foods covered by Australia’s salt restrictions must more than double to be as broad as those set by the UK in 2014. The broader targets will include common foods for which Australia currently not setting goals, such as baked beans, butter, margarine, and canned vegetables.
A loophole in the current scheme, which allows companies to skip a fifth of their products, needs to be closed. The federal government should make the policy, rather than doing it jointly with industry representatives.
In the coming decades, Australia will need many new and improved policies to reduce diet-related diseases. Reducing salt intake should be part of this program. For too long, Australia has let the food industry set the standard, with little to no progress against a major threat to our health.
Taking salt seriously would save lives and more than pay for itself through reduced health care costs and increased economic activity.
Peter Braden, Program Director, Health and Aged Care, Grattan Institute and Lachlan Fox, Fellow, Grattan Institute
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.